ESTANCIA, N.M. – The migrants were on a days-long hunger strike when guards entered their prison dormitory in full riot gear —gas masks, shields and canisters of pepper spray. The officers corralled the two dozen or so inmates into a huddled mass. Two men fell to their knees, begging them not to attack. “Suddenly, they just started gassing us,” said Yandy Bacallao, a 34-year-old asylum seeker from Cuba. “You could just hear everyone screaming for help.”
GALLUP, N.M. — At the end of the Howard Johnson Hotel’s orange and white hallway, Dr. Caleb Lauber paused by a mirror as if he were lost. The mirror was an invention of the crafty security guards who’d leaned it against a chair, allowing them to quickly see around the corner in case any guests, all COVID-19 positive, should leave their rooms. Lauber worked 60, sometimes 80-hour weeks, caring for the homeless that Gallup had arranged to shelter at local hotels. He’d seen 500 of these patients in the past month. And now his memory was failing. “What’s the room number?” he asked his nursing assistant for the second time as they rounded the corner.
This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished here with permission.
LAS VEGAS, N.M. — Elmo Baca has always loved historic buildings. He was born in Las Vegas, a Wild West city that’s one of the most historic in New Mexico, home to more than 900 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. After he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Yale University, Baca moved home for the summer, unsure what to do next. An elderly artist who lived in a restored adobe house near the city plaza changed his life with a single sentence. “This town needs you,” she told him.
BySunnie R. Clahchischiligi, Searchlight New Mexico |
SHIPROCK, N.M. — Four miles down Farm Road, just off U.S. Route 491 in northern Navajo, a group of young Diné used what was left of daylight in early May to plant onions and potatoes on Yellow Wash Farm. As the novel coronavirus stretched its way through Navajoland, leaving a trail of heartbreak and uncertainty, the four Navajo men, a mixture of family and friends from Shiprock, picked up their seeds and broke the earth with their shovels. This story first appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. By month’s end, the Navajo Nation would have the highest per-capita infection rate in the country, surpassing even New York state. The outbreak cut a swath across the vast reservation, from outposts in Arizona to the mesas and high desert in northwest New Mexico, where Shiprock, or Naatʼáanii Nééz — the largest Navajo community — became a hotspot seemingly overnight.
ALBUQUERQUE — At least 25 residents of one of New Mexico’s largest halfway houses have tested positive for COVID-19. The outbreak happened at Diersen Charities in Albuquerque, which houses inmates on their way out of the federal prison system and some who are on federal probation. The facility has enough beds to accommodate more than 100 men and women. “We’re sitting ducks,” said one resident, who declined to give his name for fear of retaliation.
This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. He described a living situation not unlike a prison, with dozens of metal-frame bunk beds stacked a few feet apart.
GALLUP – In the past two weeks, one COVID-19 patient died following what several staff physicians described as gross mismanagement by health care workers at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital. Another patient suffered severe brain damage when a ventilator was improperly adjusted, according to those same physicians. And the hospital’s critical care doctor, the only critical care physician in McKinley County, resigned, citing patient safety concerns.
On May 5, an ad-hoc group of staff providers at the hospital, formally known as Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services, unanimously voted to submit a declaration of no confidence in Rehoboth CEO David Conejo. The group, which formed this spring to protest conditions, followed up with a warning letter to the hospital board. The letter charged Conejo with creating an unsafe working environment, failing to effectively communicate, promoting a lack of transparency and poor fiscal management.
“The board members should understand that they are ultimately responsible for breaches in their fiduciary obligations to the hospital system by allowing the CEO to create unsafe working conditions,” the health care workers wrote.
The staff accused Gallup’s second largest hospital of questionable leadership decision-making that led to severe staff shortages, a Searchlight New Mexico investigation found.
Almost all of New Mexico’s 71 nursing homes have violated rules meant to protect their most vulnerable residents from infectious disease since 2017.
In total, 85 percent of the state’s facilities “failed to provide and implement an infection prevention and control program,” according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). A Searchlight New Mexico analysis of CMS records found that nearly all of the violations occurred in the last two years — a pattern of deficiencies with deadly implications as COVID-19 descends on nursing homes from Farmington to Las Cruces.
In more than half of those cases, state health inspectors certified that the nursing homes had corrected their poor sanitation practices — only to discover the same problems in a subsequent inspection. In fact, 14 of the 15 nursing homes that have seen coronavirus cases (as of May 4) have previously been cited for infection prevention and control violations. The one exception, Welbrook Senior Living in Farmington, is a newer facility that has not yet been rated.
Statewide, many of the violations were for things like failing to wash hands or improperly handling dirty laundry — deficiencies that were considered minor before the pandemic and rarely resulted in a fine. Others were far more serious.
Inspectors visiting Fort Bayard Medical Center, a nursing home in southwestern New Mexico operated by the state Department of Health, cited the facility for infection control violations at least three years in a row.
During their most recent visit in 2019, inspectors observed employees perform blood-sugar tests without washing their hands and placing equipment used to draw blood on a table caked with “white, dry, crusty material.” During that same visit, inspectors noted in their report, a resident’s catheter bags were seen dragging on the ground, and staff were using contaminated personal protective equipment — practices that “could result in infections and could result in illness, debility and death.”
At The Village at Northrise, a for-profit home in Las Cruces, inspectors found that employees did not clean the room of a patient with an unnamed “communicable infection” that causes “severe diarrhea” and “can lead to intestinal inflammation and kidney failure.”
And at Canyon Rehabilitation — the facility recently authorized by the state to care for coronavirus-positive nursing home patients despite its well-documented history of serious health and safety violations — inspectors discovered a slew of issues: poor ventilation between the biohazard storage room and laundry room, equipment not being disinfected between use and residents sitting in soiled clothing for hours.
ByEd Williams and Rachel Mabe, Searchlight New Mexico |
As cases of COVID-19 mount in New Mexico’s nursing homes, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has announced that the state will partner with Genesis Healthcare, a for-profit chain that has been denounced by the U.S. Department of Justice as an “unscrupulous provider” that routinely provides “grossly substandard nursing care.”
The plan, announced April 10, calls for elderly nursing home residents who test positive for the virus to be transferred to Canyon Transitional Rehabilitation Center, a 73-bed Genesis-owned facility in Albuquerque with a history of sometimes life-threatening health and safety violations.
In the last four years and as recently as this January, inspectors uncovered a pattern of deficiencies so severe that the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) assigned Canyon a one-star health rating — the lowest possible score. The facility has also been cited for a complete lack of infection control, massive staff shortages and staff incompetence. Canyon has been named as a defendant in at least 13 lawsuits in state court, alleging negligence, fraud and wrongful death.
Gov. Lujan Grisham did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
The decision to place coronavirus-positive nursing home patients at Canyon — where they will be cared for by Genesis employees — has been lauded by the secretaries of the Aging and Long-Term Services Department and of the Department of Health, who said the move will protect nursing home residents and staff who have not yet been exposed and provide the “treatment and quality of care necessary to give them the best possible opportunity to recover and rehabilitate from COVID-19 infection.” In an email to Searchlight, DOH said that the facility is now in compliance with all regulations.
But the plan has been met with dismay from attorneys, families and elder care experts, who say the facility is woefully unprepared to meet the needs of the state’s most vulnerable patients, even as the federal government scales back nursing home inspections. “It’s a disaster,” said Charlene Harrington, a professor at University of California San Francisco who researches the business practices of Genesis and other for-profit nursing home chains. “They’re going to get away with bloody murder because they’re going to get top dollar for these patients and with no oversight.”
The state is currently in negotiations to pay the all-COVID nursing home a rate of $600 per patient per day.
ByNick Pachelli and Ike Swetlitz, Searchlight New Mexico |
“The hospital and the country knew it’s coming. And administration and staff are running around throwing out all sorts of supplies,” said a nurse at Albuquerque’s Presbyterian Hospital, one of the state’s largest medical centers. A 20-year employee of the hospital, she requested anonymity because she had not been authorized to speak to the media.
“It’s sad, it’s horrific,” she said, ticking off a list of what was tossed out: hand sanitizer, masks, intravenous tubing, hospital gowns, bandages. “The whole closet.”
When Jonas Palmer was ordered to move out of his dorm because of coronavirus, he was taken aback. Just two days earlier — while sitting in a classroom at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque — he’d been on a conference call with college president Sherry Allison. As Palmer recalls it, she assured all 250 students living on campus that they could shelter in place in their dorms.
But now administrators had decided that wasn’t possible. It was late March, and the school bought Palmer a one-way ticket to Oklahoma — where his mom lives, on a Comanche reservation near Cache, a town of about 3,000 in the southwest quadrant of the state.